Safeguarding conferences are becoming the land that change forgot

The lack of a firm steer from the universities regulator means a sector left in limbo when it comes to tackling sexual misconduct – and events covering the same issues year after year


University of Suffolk,Bournemouth University
31 Aug 2022
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We were recently invited to attend an online forum policy conference on the “next steps for addressing sexual misconduct in higher education”. It followed on from the UK regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), marking the first year since it released its statement of expectations to prevent and address harassment and sexual misconduct in universities.

Unsurprisingly, the focus of the event was the “next steps” area, considering how universities can better support students who might be victims of sexual harassment and misconduct, and how we might “change the culture” in institutions to reduce the likelihood of incidents. As is usual, we were invited to speak at the event and to comment about online harms in universities.

Attendees ranged from senior managers and academics conducting research in the area to those providing student services, as well as professionals from law firms and agencies who might both advise universities on how to tackle these issues and intervene in the event of an incident.

Among the many excellent talks and discussions were research presentations that clearly showed sexual misconduct and gender-based violence is happening on university campuses; others showing how particular institutions had tackled these issues, and discussions from many experts in the field suggesting what best practice in this area would look like. Obviously, the statement of expectations featured heavily, and at the conclusion of the event it was clear there was a consensus that this is a problem and universities need to do more.

Seemingly, since the OfS released the statement more than a year ago, little has changed, the sector remains confused as to what is actually expected, and we reflected once more on the startling déjà vu of what was discussed.

This was the fourth such event we have attended in the past 12 months. All follow a similar format and have similar outcomes.

Certainly, a significant section of people in HE think student safeguarding is important and are trying to address this at their respective institutions. Yet we’ve been presenting and discussing the same issues at these events and similar forums (for example, round tables with policymakers) for well over five years now. At each event there is much nodding and serious faces expressing concern that this sort of thing happens on campus and that we should be doing “something about it”. But the glacial pace of change in the sector is somewhat frustrating.

For example, Universities UK’s Changing the Culture report came out in 2016. We all agreed something needed to be done. “Don’t worry,” we were told, “the OfS is going to bring out a statement of expectations.” This came out in 2021, to much publicity and little impact. “Don’t worry,” we were told, “all HEIs have to respond to this statement.” Which they now have, although again we see little change as a result.

In a recent discussion with some students we asked: “If you were a victim of image-based abuse and your university ignored pleas for help, would you go to the Office for Students?”

“Who are they?” was the response.

Given that the OfS states: “Where we receive information about a provider relating to harassment or sexual misconduct, for example through a notification from a student, we may carry out further engagement or investigation to determine whether that provider is at increased risk of breach, or has breached, one or more of its existing conditions of registration.” We might suggest that a disclosure-based enforcement approach will not be effective.

During the event, we saw evidence regarding why we might not be moving as fast as we (and students) might like when it comes to safeguarding. Sly asides that, given the statement of expectations is not statutory, “we don’t really have to do much do we?” and comments such as “is safeguarding really the responsibility of the institution? Shouldn’t they go to the police?” were heard, as was the hardy perennial “we’ve got an anonymous reporting system that students can use if they like”.

Interestingly, the suggestion that, similar to the schools sector, if we want senior managers and boards to take student safeguarding seriously, the OfS should make their statement statutory, was met with horror. “We don’t want an Ofsted for the higher education sector!”

So where does this leave us?

Clearly some institutions are taking these issues seriously. Durham University has made its response to the statement of expectations publicly available on its website, yet this good practice has not been taken up by many in the sector.

The OfS still maintains, in its FAQ on the statement of expectations, that if universities do not respond effectively, the regulator “may” move to regulation in the future. If not now, when? We need to move away from funding pots (where institutions can bid to build interventions that cease when the funding stops) toward proper policy support, advice and guidance for institutions on what they should be doing – and how.

Without some strong “encouragement” for senior leaders and some scrutiny from governing bodies to take these issues seriously, we will remain in the situation in which we currently reside. Enthusiasts working often on an individual basis within their institutions to try to get something/anything done may be supported, but equally they may be told to focus on other priorities.

The “politician’s syllogism”, made famous in the Yes Minister TV show, comes to mind:

“We need to do something!”
“Well, how about this? This is something.”

“Yes, that’ll do.”

Rather than institutions surveying their students to see if the societal problem of sexual misconduct and gender-based violence manifests on their campus, we suggest that universities can learn a valuable lesson from the schools sector, with advice from last year’s Ofsted report into school-based sexual violence suggesting:

“…even where school and college leaders do not have specific information that indicates sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are problems for their children and young people, they should act on the assumption that they are.”

We will, we are sure, be asked to other events to speak about sexual and online abuse in universities. The audience will nod and agree that something needs to be done. Then students in the audience will come up to us afterwards with stories of how they, or their peers, have been let down by their institutions, and we will all agree this is unacceptable.

However, we fear that without a strong steer from the regulator, nothing will change.

Emma Bond is pro vice-chancellor, research, and professor of socio-technical research at the University of Suffolk. She has more than 20 years’ experience of teaching in higher education and researching risk in online environments and is chair of the national NSPCC ethics committee.

Andy Phippen is professor of digital rights at Bournemouth University and visiting professor at the University of Suffolk. He has specialised in the use of ICT in social contexts and the intersection with legislation for almost 20 years.

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